25 April, 2020

Making Wilderness Play Meaningful — Some History

The idea of the hexcrawl has fascinated me ever since I first read about it.  Like I think a lot of people--especially those without access to Judges Guild products--wilderness adventures in general were largely passed over by myself and my gaming buddies when kids.  The idea of aimlessly wandering around the wilderness getting eaten by bears or 1D4x100 orcs or whatever rather than "actually playing the game" didn't hold any excitement.

However, after reading about the concept of the hexcrawl and the now-legendary West Marches campaign--around the same time my childhood interest in D&D had been rekindled after drifting away when 3.5 came out--I became intoxicated with the idea of player-guided exploration of the wilderness, where exploration was its own reward.  The land is dark and full of terrors, but also fantastically cool encounters and treasures and oddities, worth wandering through even if there's no firm destination in mind.

The only problem is that there's no real system to handle it.

The Wilderness in D&D

When looking to run something in an OSR game, the natural sources of guidance are old-school texts.  First, we need to realize that wilderness travel and wilderness exploration are two different elements, though so closely interlinked that they're often treated as one and the same.  D&D covered travel, but not exploration: that is, the rules tell you how to get from A to B, but not much of what to do in the meantime.  Wilderness content is largely limited to random encounters and (in some versions) hunting and foraging for food; there's no mechanics for actually scouring an area, be it a hex or whatever.  The general assumption seems to have been that wilderness items were essentially location-based.  That is, you used the travel rules to go straight to the location you had in mind: there wouldn't be any wandering around looking for items or places of interest unless the DM first seeded it (or decided to spontaneously run with the results of a random encounter roll).  The exception was with goal-based exploration: in OD&D, players looking to place their eventual name-level fortress had to scout around to find a spot they liked, which could entail some general wandering about without a set destination in mind.  I'm not sure how often that happened outside of the core TSR gaming group, but it's there in the book.

Wilderness Travel

Like many things, how wilderness travel worked varied across the rulesets.  OD&D decided to piggyback on another set of rules: namely, Avalon Hill's Outdoor Survival boardgame.

The whole OD&D travel ruleset: short and sweet
As you can see, this uses a hex-based system.  That is, there's not just the assumption of a hex map, but the hexes themselves are the main unit of overland travel.  It assumes a fixed hex size of 3 miles per hex, but that figure doesn't really matter: it's only there to give you some idea of what you're dealing with, rather than miles-based measurements having any effect on play.

It's actually quite an elegant system, but has the obvious shortfall of requiring another's company's product to run.  As TSR expanded and D&D moved into its own, doubtless the requirement for players to buy an Avalon Hill boardgame just to run this portion of the game seemed a needless one.

So, with AD&D we get a new system.  And it's not really a good one at all.

I could go into detail, but really, Delta has said it better than I could on his blog, so I'll just give a summary.  In short, though still assuming that you were using hexes as the base unit of interface, AD&D layered a miles-based system on top of it.  This enabled the game to break free from the need to have Outdoor Survival (I wonder how many copies were sold to OD&D players who were just looking to run their campaigns).  It also allowed DMs to vary the size of their hexes to suit their campaign scale.  However, the clash between hexes and miles resulted in some ugly kludges and a real pain when attempting to track movement, especially movement that crossed into terrain that gave movement modifiers.  It's really not satisfactory.  Unfortunately, it's the system that D&D wound up sticking with, also being used in B/X and BECMI.  Even as the game was content to abstract in many other places, such as the 1-minute combat round, the 10-minute adventuring turn, gold into XP (hell, the idea of XP in general), and the concept of hit points, overland travel was left tied to a specific, granular, real-world measurement scale.

Wilderness Exploration

Regardless of how we get around the wilderness, what do we do when we're in it?  Fight and maybe eat, seems to be the answer.  Wilderness travel using the AD&D rules (which B/X and BECMI followed) was annoying, but resolveable: the real gap in the rules was the sense of the wilderness as a unique and separate playspace.  Conceptually, the wilderness in old-school D&D is a creative and mechanical void.

Fighting is simple: there are random encounter tables, and when you find a monster, roll your reaction check and see what they feel like doing, just like in a dungeon.  Hunting and foraging is in B/X and BECMI (the latter's implementation being an improvement over the B/X version), and is quite short and very easy to use.  But these do not inspire, and they don't offer a new mode of play that would compel someone to wander off into the forest or desert in search of adventure.  Instead, you're left with vaguaries.  For example, hunting and foraging rules were present (at least for Basic), but what did it mean when you ran out of food?  The rules didn't say.

That having been said, I don't think you need much in the way of rules to really make a wilderness-based game work: I don't think wilderness play fell off due to lack of rules, but lack of guidance.  Dungeoneering has long examples of play and construction guidelines in the rulebooks.  A dungeon's naturally constricted venue of play also makes it easier for a DM--especially a new one--to create something usable, whereas the very openness of wilderness play can be intimidating.  There are lots of dungeon modules out there to draw inspiration and guidance from.  Wilderness modules, on the other hand, tend to be plot-based adventures set against a wilderness backdrop: the wilderness is a mere touch of the exotic, rather than its own thing.  The Expert box set introduced wilderness mechanics as a major new item of play and its enclosed X1: Isle of Dread is the best official example of a pure wilderness module we have, but its format was abandoned immediately thereafter, the X line allowed to immediately devolve into generic D&D adventures that merely were built for the stated level range of the Expert box set (even if some of these were quite good at times).

At last conceptually, the best guide to wilderness exploration for the sake of wilderness exploration came from third-party products.  Judges Guild's Wilderlands of High Fantasy introduced the concept of the hexcrawl--not so much formally, with written examination and guidelines, but through example, giving you a series of hexes and then a list of contents in those hexes.  The contents ranged from enemies, to mundane items (altars, tombstones), to treasure, to whole lost cities, all described in a line or two.  No exploration procedures were given--the assumption seems to be that when you entered the hex, you automatically found whatever was there--but the very idea that something could be done in this fashion expanded the possibilities of wilderness play.**

Additionally, the idea of wilderness exploration in general faded out because the idea of unguided exploration as a whole disappeared.  Sandbox play was something that died young in the history of D&D, players and DMs coming to prefer scripted encounters and story-based plotlines.  The idea of exploration for the sake of exploration--something a wilderness venue enables quite well--was thus something few seemed to be looking for.  The lack of rules and DM guidance mentioned above only compounded this.

What Does Wilderness Exploration Need?

In short, I feel wilderness exploration is overlooked because of a lack of concrete adventure material and general guidance, and a lack of a robust ruleset that creates new opportunities for wilderness play.  I don't think you need a fresh ruleset to run a hexcrawl or a wilderness sandbox in general (history makes this clear), but I think a good one would enhance the experience.

With all the above in mind, what do I think a wilderness ruleset meant to facilitate a hexcrawl needs?

  1. An elegant hex-based system for tracking overland travel.  No trying to mash hexes and miles together.  It needs to cleanly integrate mounts, weather, terrain, fatigue, and encumbrance with a base method of everyday travel.  Getting lost should be easy to adjudicate.  Overall, the first reaction of players and DMs when the wilderness map is brought out must not be a groan of dismay.  Ideally, there will be meaningful player choices available even here.
  2. Interactions and effects not already present in dungeon play.  For example, dungeons have the hunt for traps and secret doors, something that generally doesn't feature in wilderness or urban play.  Hunting and foraging is such a wilderness example, though ideally we're going to have something more interesting than "fending off starvation".  Weather is a similar one.  Random encounters, already a staple of D&D, simply need to fit in to whatever new is added.
  3. Player-facing mechanics.  As this is going to be offering a new style of play (or, more accurately, facilitating an uncommon and old style), it needs to be presented to the players rather than reserved for DMs, so that players have the rules in front of them to prompt them into choosing to go exploring, but also so that the choices made while exploring can be informed ones.

The second item is going to be the hardest, in that, thanks to the lack of a standard old-school template to draw off of, people have wildy varied ideas as to what wilderness exploration should even consist of and offer: not just in terms of granularity, but with regards to the base features available.  One person's Fantasy Vietnam survival game is another's freewheeling pauldroncore nonsense.

For myself, I can say that I'm less interested in creating a wilderness simulator than I am a vehicle for wilderness exploration.  In other words, I want more opportunities for adventure and a different style of play, rather than more realism.  I'm not looking for a lot of rules, but rather, just enough to facilitiate a hexcrawl.

In my next post I'll detail the system I've come up with, bearing in mind the above.

**Speaking of expanding the possibilities of play, the less said about the late 1st-edition product Wilderness Survival Guide, the better.  A book which had the opportunity to open up a whole new world of campaigning completely squandered the opportunity in order to add a host of fiddly, granular rules on top of the existing wilderness rules structure.  That is, rather than adding new modes of play, it added (unneeded) granularity to existing modes.  There was the occasional bit of useful material (while oddly based on character level, the jumping rules in particular are something I've found often strangely overlooked in rulesets, considering it's something every character can do and--with the number of pits and the like in dungeons--inevitably will want to do).  Overall though, it's a bust: detail for the sake of detail, naturalism at its worst.

14 April, 2020

An Initial Look at The Halls of Arden Vul

First, I want to make clear that this is not a review.  A review means in-depth analysis, not a flip through its pages combined with surface impressions, which is what I'm going to give you.  Famed punk rock band Tenfootpole claims to be working on a proper review, and it will be far more thorough than this in the ways that matter.  I just wanted to give a bit more info than the usual publisher previews (though some of what's below is preview material), and in doing so start breaking down the material for my own understanding.

Basic Content

I'm sure you know what this is at this point: a 1,120-page megadungeon, in five volumes.  Volumes 1-3 are adventure content, while volume 4 is all the new ancillary stuff: 149 New Monsters, 332 New Magic Items, 69 New Technological Items, 44 New Spells.  Volume 5 contains the maps.

The text uses 10-pt Minion Pro, with spells and items separated out in a font reminiscent of 1st edition's Futura.  Layout is at once clean and stuffed: select use of bolding and whitespace means it's navigable, but of course you don't get 1,100+ pages in without a shitton of text.  In short, it could use more whitespace, but I figure even a half-point font increase would increase the page count by 10%.  So let's call it making the best of the situation.

One of the pieces I particularly like.
Art is what you'd expect for the most part in an OSR project: classic black and white line art.  There are some nice full-pagers once in a while as you can see.  Overall, I have to admit that while art is important to me for my own projects, I rarely care about it in others so I'm not the best arbiter here.  I would only point out that with 1,100+ pages of content, art is going to be sparse.  I'd guess you're getting a piece on average about every 4-5 pages or so.  Most of it is new to my eyes, and so illustrates the dungeon rather than just filling space, though there are the occasional William McAusland and Dean Spencer stock art filler pieces.

Introductory Material

So what is it, exactly?  It's a lost city, long ago torn apart by civil war. It's broadly intended for 1st edition: you've got your nine-axis alignment on NPCs, 1st ed spells, etc.  It uses the OGL and OSRIC licenses.

And another.
The intended level range is for PCs of levels 1 to 12.  It has two different levels intended to start 1st level PCs off.  There's a table on p. 12 that shows dungeon level to PC level pair-ups.

There's a backstory, of course: I'd call it brief for 1,100+ pages.  For all that the OSR tends to hate backstory, you do need some of it to help the DM provide appropriate answers, especially for stuff like divination magic. Here it's especially important in order to make sense of the numerous factions, which I'll get to shortly.  There's a giant timeline as well, though this is clearly just for reference.

Design Principle: I always appreciate a section devoted to this, so long as the designer has something worth saying.  This one tells us we've got over 2,000 keyed encounter areas over 25 levels.  It also gives this useful bit:

the product is self-referential in numerous subtle ways. This means that actions taken by adventurers [on] one level can and will affect their adventures elsewhere in the Halls, sometimes in ways that they may not even realize. We have provided numerous cross-references which the GM can use to help keep track of how foolish or clever actions in one place might affect actions taken elsewhere. In this sense, the Halls are a living place, and the adventurers only one of many inputs that affect how the site evolves and changes.
This is key, as one of the more mockable dungeon design tropes is the monsters walled up in their individual cells, with no existence except to wait for the blessed day when the players throw open their door.  From what I've seen, the encounters often do have their own lives, moving about on their own and performing actions based on the existing dungeon denizens.  Based on my reading so far, the dungeon certainly holds up to the statement above.

General Construction Features: I think all dungeons should have these, as they affect basic flavour text but also how the dungeon reacts to certain spells, such as stone shape.  What's interesting here is that many of the factions within have done some of their own building, and so they have their own construction foibles.  Much of this here is fluff, but it does give you default door size and construction, whether they're locked or not, ceiling height.  I'd call it overly detailed, but its heart is in the right place.

The dungeon level to PC level pairing table, along with a shot of the Construction Features

Investigative Info: There's an allowance for sages or other NPCs in the wider world knowing about certain key dungeon areas, a nice touch that begins the process of imprinting the dungeon on your world.  It breaks these up by obscurity, although ultimately you're left to decide what differentiates the spread of knowledge on a "rare" location vs an "esoteric" location.  This is essentially an alternate-format rumour table, in that for each location there's what anyone who knows something would know, and then how accurate that info actually is.

Beyond that, we have a two different 100-entry rumour tables, one for adventurers and other folk that have been there, the other with historical-type information.  They both have your standard true or false natures.  These are good rumours too, with some mixed truth and falsehoods.  For example:

The Great Chasm is an important route to the lower levels (T). Or so my sources said. The problem? A tribe of trolls lives in the chasm (F). They ride on top of tamed giant spiders so they can scamper up and down the chasm walls (F).

Faction Table: 12 major factions, each with different relations to the others, ranging from not knowing who they are to hatred to neutrality to fondness to fear.  You then get about 20 pages to break this all down in detail.

Hooks: You get some standard stuff in this regard: missing person, missing thingymabob.  Then there's bits like get through a particular set of doors, or infiltrate a cult in the dungeon.  There's a good mix of fetch quests and exploration here.  There's even a table here on pp. 53-54 that shows all the captives you could rescue, who would want them back, and where they are.

There's a section offering apologetics for its unabashed usage of tech once in a while, a la Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.  It also offers ways to reskin the tech stuff for fantasy purists.  However, by and large this is a trad fantasy dungeon, not a tech-based one: this stuff is largely the province of just one of the twelve factions.  I do appreciate the designer flexibility of realizing some people are a little more insistent on their genre barriers, though.

The exception, rather than the rule.

Adventuring Content

And so here we are: page 60 and we're at last ready to get underway with adventuring content.

First you have the outlying valley, the approaches to the dungeon.  This gives you stuff like village names and locations, fortifications nearby, natural features, local authorities. The surface of the ruined city has been deliberately left vague, so if you want to play there, you need to do some of the work yourself.  However, there is still two dozen pages of material for the surface, including some keyed areas and a few tables for encounters and goodies.

Okay, at this point we've in what we expect to see in a megadungeon, namely the actual dungeons.   The dungeon itself starts on p. 81.  Let's do a bit of selective digging and call up some points I think are worth highlighting.

For each level, there's a chart listing all other levels this level can access: a good choice.

Many levels have a graffiti table.  I like this: it essentially serves as supplementary rumour table, albeit a cryptic one.  I suspect in a lot of cases it's going to function akin to prophecy: players having something happen, checking their notes, and going "oh, that's what it was referring to".  But I still think they're fun.

Encounter Writeups

Room Titles are reasonably good.  All short, they make an effort at being descriptive.  Even something like Room 3-191 Empty Cave?, using a question mark to make clear that there's more going on than first appears.  Storage Chamber.  Misty Cave.  Black Light Zombies.  You get an idea of what's going on.

I'd say the general style is a Greg Gillespie-style classic vanilla: it tries to be thorough and creative within the scope of what we would call traditional old-school D&D: there's nothing Raggiesque here.  I have no issue with this, being a big fan of classic D&D: a desire to capture this spirit is what made me return to this via the OSR in the first place.  I'd also argue that there's room for creativity within the bounds of vanilla.  Room 8-76 has a room with warped flesheaters that are hanging around eternally feasting on the flank of a god who is partially projecting into this plane.  Twisted flesheaters endlessly carving off godsteaks is a great encounter.  In a module full of this, you'd wind up with gonzo, but it still clearly has a place in vanillaland.  Encounters like these aren't the norm, but it does go to show that there's more than orcs and goblins and whatnot within.

Encounter write-ups specifically swing between for the most part between one column and three lines.

The description style for an encounter is comprehensive by topic. That is, it breaks down key features paragraph by paragraph, dealing with them in their totality before moving to the next.  The advantage to this is that everything is together.  The downside is that you really don't get a quickie overview of a room, and the longer the room is, the more you have to read to provide the sort of PC-eye description you'd give to them when they first enter.

So here on p. 164, we have "Ancient Tombs and Halfling Camp".  We have walls, 3 sarcophagi, 3 candelebras near them.  So far, so good.  Then we have a northeast opening, and a parapet made of rubble across it, and some historical detail on the passage and dwarven stonework info.  Then, detail on a poison manufactory against the south wall, which is then like the parapet broken down to give you all the detail you might want for it.

Because most but not all of this gets its own paragraph, it's at least reasonably well ordered.  But it means a decent amount of reading for each room before you know you've told the party all the most relevant visual details.  It's the sort of writing style that calls for a highlighter, unfortunately.  Now, I want to emphasize that this isn't verbose.  There's a little pointless historical detail (e.g., for here in the stuff about the parapet), but not much.  It's more a matter of organization.  I prefer a summational room description style to let the DM be sure that they have everything visually distinct immediately at hand: "here's what immediately catches your eye when you walk in".  Such a style also facilitates the back and forth investigative dialogue between players and DM that's so the hallmark of old-school play.  Broadly, I think the text could use a bit more focus, especially considering how big this product is.  The longer the room entry, the more of a problem this is.

How I'd highlight the essentials.

I do want to talk about some of the nice bits of room organization though.  We have a Tactical Note, so not everything is just charging you.  We have creature statblocks well separated out.  We have a separate treasure section, and even a GM Option section that suggests that maybe you want to put a bridge up here.

Again, not every room gets this sort of mammoth breakdown.  Flip the page and we have room 3-5A, which gets three lines.  The page after that and we have room 3-8 with 12 lines.  So it's not a wall of text for every room.

Overall, the description style is "reasonably short descriptive".  This is opposed to point-form terse (ultra-terse OSR style or early 1st ed), folksy conversational, or long-form descriptive (2nd ed or Wizards of the Coast style).  Here's another example:

"The upper register of the walls still bear evidence of the room’s original function as a Thothian audience hall: images of ibises, baboons, magical symbols, and cylindrically-hatted priests form a frieze along the upper register of the room."

I generally hate "used-to-bes", because 9 out of 10 times they're irrelevant.  Here, any player that's reached this point has probably clued in that Thoth is important to the area.  Basically, I think you could trim 5-10% of the module in the form of narrative links and historical "used-to-bes", though the result would be that some others would find the work overly sparse, I'm sure.  To me, this is an acceptable amount of such material: it doesn't make the module a slog or anything, and would only be noted by someone expecting either the much shorter or much longer forms of these entries.

Random Bits

Arden Vul doesn't provide us with a homebase area outside the dungeon, like Barrowmaze and Highfell does, for instance.  Instead, there's dungeon areas specifically geared to wider interactions, which I like.  Level 4, The Forum of Set, is a giant market and meeting area where the players can unload stuff without slogging back to civilization, buy new stuff, get info, and meet and greet the factions.  It's a great idea, and believable in a former city and a setting of this size.  There's some good smaller-scale personalities to interact with here in the form of merc parties and interesting vendors as well, with goods available beyond the usual weapons, armour, and 50 feet of rope.  These people have nice, workable personality notes to help run them, for example, "Sarcastic, impatient, sharp ears", or "Unctuous, obsequious, curious."  Slaves are regularly bought and sold here, though it doesn't descend into Gorean edgelord territory.

Area 4: The Forum of Set.

In terms of treasure, even on the intro level there's an enormous haul, though it's in the delightfully assholish form of 220,000 coins (worth about 8,500 XP in all).  Then there's the main vault concealed by all this garbage, which has another 30K worth of stuff in a great mix of items ranging from gold statues to a gold-gilded bed to death masks to eggs.  It's not easy to find though, being behind two different secret doors.  An analysis of whether or not the adventure as a whole has enough bling would require close study and is beyond the scope of what I'm doing here.

As an aside, I'm not seeing many typos.  I do tend to notice these, being a writer myself, so while I'm not saying the thing is free of them, it's not egregious (I've found all of one).

Lastly, the size of this thing in PDF (which is how many people are going to come to it, as it's cheaper, and out first), is in *some* ways deceptive.  Just because the single work as a whole is 1120 pages doesn't mean you're *using* 1120 pages every second you're running this, anymore than, say, a guy with all the Forgotten Realm books needs to bring out every country guide to run an adventure in Waterdeep.  90% of the time you'll be referencing one of the volumes at a time, and none of the levels spill into other volumes and thus force you to use two at once.  In that light, on a session-to-session basis it wouldn't be much different than trying to run Barrowmaze or something of a similar length.  The dungeon is enormous, but isn't meant to be shotgunned into your face as a whole at once.

Summing Up

So, is it worth it?  I certainly like what I see so far, but am well aware that it's the slightest skim over something this enormous, and I really hate glance-throughs masquerading as reviews, so I'm holding off on a final verdict still.

I think that even if you don't use this whole, you could easily steal mountains of it for your own games.  In terms of price, yes, it's expensive as all hell.  People in particular have complained about the cost of the PDF, but the idea that printing and warehousing are the only costs associated with creating a gamebook is a pernicious idea that needs to die.  You don't get three people labouring for multiple years on a multi-volume project without incurring significant costs in terms of layout time, art costs, and that little thing known as paying the writer.